Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How Remarried Couples Relate to Adult Children

November 16, 2005

Remarried couples have some hurdles to cross. One of the challenges is to work as a team in relating to the adult children of previous relationships. In some cases, the adult children are not yet mature or settled in life and present financial and emotional headaches.

On the other hand, adult children may be frustrated by the changes in lifestyle and attitude in their parent as he or she is influenced by the new spouse. The relationships change. There seems to be less commitment, interest or closeness as there once was.

It is a reciprocal relationship. Problems can exist on one side or the other - or both. One party can’t solve problems alone if the other side chooses not be constructive. Loyalties are tested and hard feelings can produce family rifts and tensions.

Here are twelve guidelines for parents to protect their marriage as well as to maximize healthy intergenerational relationships.

1. Be supportive. You both need to feel to free to interact with your own biological children and grandchildren and to feel supported and encouraged by your spouse in that effort.

2. Be a team. You need to function as a team in coordinating and consulting with each other about schedules, plans, and holidays. These plans shouldn't be made unilaterally. Work through your differences and come up with a joint agreement.

3. Be hospitable. If adult children surprise you or if something spontaneous occurs, be supportive and understanding of your spouse. Give your spouse the benefit of the doubt if he or she has to make quick decisions without you. Inform your spouse as early as possible of any changes.

4. Be loyal. There should be no lies, deceit or hidden meetings. All family contacts should be discussed together. Keep your word to your spouse. Any violations of your agreements need to be treated seriously and resolved with appropriate apologies and forgiveness and a renewed commitment to respect your loyalty as a couple.

Don’t give secret aid or financial gifts without working out agreements with your spouse. Don’t make promises without consulting your spouse.

5. Keep the children out of marriage problems. In relating to your own children, you should respect the confidentiality of your marriage. Don’t discuss your relationship or the faults of your spouse. Don’t blame your joint decisions on your spouse to preserve the goodwill of your children.

Seek counseling to work out marital problems. Your children will only be too happy to take your side. This will damage their willingness to accept your spouse at some future point. Don’t enlist their support or comfort.

6. Don’t be intrusive or demanding. You need to relate to the children of your spouse with respect and courtesy. Be as hospitable as you can be around them. Relationships take time. Be reliable and consistent in your actions so they can learn to know and trust you.

Take an interest in their lives but let them set the tone for how much intimacy they want to share with you. Let time be your ally. Allow them time to work through any feelings of anger or loss they have from a previous divorce or death.

7. Be accepting. You are supposedly older and more mature. Although it's often difficult, it's important to try to understand their hurt and anger in having the old family split up. They are young and have their faults and weaknesses.

Be extra patient. Your remarriage and all the changes that means is a big change for them to assimilate. Have reasonable expectations as they come to terms with the new reality.

8. Do holidays as a couple. When making plans for family gatherings, holidays and events, you need to function as a team and relate to your adult children as a couple. You need to help them understand and relate to you as a couple.

Don't go singly to a major holiday gathering - help them know that issues need to be worked out in advance so that you can socialize as a couple at these events.

9. Be flexible. The children have a relationship with their other parent that needs to be respected. Don't make them feel they are being disloyal because they make time for him or her. Family rituals may need to be adjusted to meet the changed family situation.

Spend positive time together in the new family groupings. Find fun things to do to help deal with stress and to begin anew. Create new traditions and family activities.

10. Be fair. Be open and honest about financial arrangements with children from both sides. Jealousies can evolve when secret arrangements come out in the open. You have a right to make you own choices but have the courage to explain what you are doing. Your actions may not always be equal but they can be understood and accepted.

Make an effort to stay involved and be even-handed in your gift-giving and time spent with all the children and grandchildren on both sides.

11. Respect the children’s memories. If your first spouse is deceased, preserve the keepsakes and heirlooms from your first marriage for your own children. Don’t let them pass into the hands of your spouse’s estate or children. Be clear with everyone how certain possessions are to be handled.

12. Get help. To resolve major emotional wounds between families or individuals, seek professional counseling to mediate the estrangement that keeps you apart.